The Death of Omayra Sanchez

While the content I choose to write about is often tragic or graphic in nature, this is the first time I have felt the need to write a disclaimer before getting into the story. The following article contains both pictures and descriptions that some readers may find upsetting.

Omayra Sanchez Garzon was a 13-year-old Colombian girl who was killed during the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano around 80 miles west of the Colombian capital of Bogota. Her heartbreaking final hours of life were recorded by French photojournalist Frank Fourier. One of his photographs, shown in the header image of this article, was published worldwide following the eruption, and later won Fourier the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1986. 

The summit of Nevado del Ruiz following the eruption. Image: Jeffrey Marso, USGS

Born in August 1972, Omayra grew up in the town of Armero, in the Tolina Department of Colombia. She was the daughter of Alvaro Enrique, a rice picker, and Maria Aleida, and lived with them along with her brother Alvaro and aunt Maria. Little else is recorded of her life before the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz on November 13th 1985, causing what is now known as the Armero Tragedy.

Just after 9pm at night on November 13th 1985, a volcanic eruption rapidly melted the icecap that had formed on the surrounding mountain, forming a ‘lahar’ of volcanic mud and debris that flowed down into the surrounding valleys. The tide, travelling at around 13 miles per hour, engulfed the town of Armero, killing as many as 20,000 people. It was the first time the volcano had erupted in over 100 years, which had resulted in authorities opting not to set up expensive defences and other measures that could have minimised the death toll.

The town of Armero following the lahar. Image: Wikicommons

The eruption was not entirely unpredicted, however, and the response of the Colombian authorities to earlier warning signs has since been criticised. Up to two months earlier, earthquakes and steam eruptions in the vicinity of the volcano suggested that an eruption was likely. A hazard map was distributed to threatened communities in October, including Armero, warning of the dangers of falling ash and lahars. While the map was published in Colombian newspapers, many survivors later stated that they had never seen it.

Scientists who warned of the threat of an eruption were accused of scaremongering by the Colombian Congress, while the army were preoccupied with combating the guerrilla activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and their far-left allies.

Armero formerly stood in the centre of this picture. Image: Jeffrey Marso, USGS

Shortly after electrical power shut down and radios cut out, a lahar flooded into Amero at around 11:30pm, sweeping almost the entire town away and killing more than three-quarters of its inhabitants. Across three waves Armero was swamped by mud flows for around two hours, burying some 85% of the town. The event ultimately became the second most deadly volcanic eruption of the 20th Century, behind only the eruption of Mount Pelee on the island of Martinique in 1902.

While her house was destroyed, Omayra survived the initial impact of the lahar, but was buried in concrete in the waterlogged ruins of her home. She was able to work her hand clear of the debris above her, which was spotted by rescuers that took almost a day to clear the wreckage covering her. However, they found that it was impossible to pull her free of the rubble and water surrounding her without breaking her legs, which were trapped beneath a submerged brick wall. In addition, her aunt had drowned while tightly clinging to her feet and legs.

Rescuers wash Omayra’s face with water during rescue attempts. Image: Frank Fournier

The first journalist on the scene was German Santa Maria Barragan, a Colombian journalist who now serves as the Colombian Ambassador to Portugal. Barragan describes Omayra as being in good spirits despite her predicament, singing to him as she waited to be rescued, eating sweets and drinking soda. However, as the third night of her being trapped rolled around, her condition rapidly deteriorated and she began to hallucinate, begging Barragan to help her get to school as she was afraid of being late.

The effects of exposure, her prolonged submersion in water and the pressure of the debris pinning her resulted in intensely bloodshot eyes, giving them the haunting, black appearance seen in the famous photograph.

Rescuers worked for two and a half days trying to free the teenager. Image: Langevin Jacques

While rescue workers eventually retrieved a pump for use in a final attempt to rescue her, the bricks trapping her had left her in a kneeling position, meaning they were unable to extract her without severing her legs. Lacking the surgical supplies that would be required if she were to survive a double amputation, doctors agreed that their most humane option was to allow her to die. After being trapped for around 60 hours, Omayra Sanchez died from a combination of exposure, gangrene and hypothermia.

Fournier had arrived in Armero at dawn of the 16th November, just a few hours before Omayra passed. He was directed by a resident to the location where she was trapped, and later described making the decision to take the photos of her as his way of ‘reporting properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl’. 

The publicity generated by the photograph, particularly after it was named World Press Photo of the Year, saw increased pressure on the Colombian Government following their perceived failure to act on warning signs prior to the volcano’s eruption. Armero no longer exists, the site instead home to a number of crosses and a small memorial to Omayra. 

1 Comment

  1. I remember seeing the first photo of omayra elsewhere and found her eyes were black. Now I know that it was due to deficiency in oxygen and complication of other symptoms as a result of infection and exhaustion. The 6th black and white photo of omayra is particularly heart wrenching because a mix of despairs and Hope dominates her little face. I strongly criticize the government’s inapt rescue procedure.
    Think about the recent international maneuvering of rescuing the Thai children. On a more personal note, I cannot help thinking what if my brother, parents, or cat is in omayra’s situation.

    Liked by 1 person

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